NIU students begin journey back to normalcy after shooting

Tuesday, February 26, 2008
A Northern Illinois University student walked away from a small memorial Monday outside Cole Hall on the first day of classes since the Feb. 14 shooting that killed five students in the hall in Dekalb, Ill. (Rex Arbogast ~ Associated Press)

DEKALB, Ill. -- Mark Kozera walked into Monday's math class at Northern Illinois University a minute or two late and was relieved to hear his teacher and classmates already reviewing for an upcoming test.

It meant they weren't discussing the shooting.

"I don't need to talk about it," the 20-year-old sophomore from Oak Forest said of Feb. 14, when a gunman wordlessly walked into an auditorium and shot and killed five students before committing suicide. "It helps the healing process to get as normal as possible."

But Northern Illinois University is anything but normal less than two weeks after the rampage.

So despite his focus on classes, Kozera joined dozens of others in a school courtyard just a few hundred yards from the site of the attack -- getting hugs from a total stranger.

A Northern Illinois University students board a campus bus Monday near Cole Hall on the first day of classes since the Feb. 14, shooting that killed five students in the hall in Dekalb, Ill. (Rex Arbogast ~ Associated Press)

The members of a church group offering "free hugs" and volunteers standing with dogs for students to pet as they work through their grief were among the many signs around campus that little was as it was before Steven Kazmierczak's attack inside Cole Hall.

White crosses remained on a small knoll in honor of those who died. News trucks parked around campus. Red ribbons pinned to the jackets of hundreds of students, faculty and staff, offered a quiet tribute. And yellow crime scene tape remained strung in front Cole Hall.

Message boards nearly the size of billboards stood outside, crowded with messages of comfort, faith, anger and condolence while students and others continued to seek out an empty space to add their own thoughts on the events of 11 days previous.

"You've got to move on," said Jonathan Brock, a 25-year-old Chicagoan studying industrial management, who was clearly not quite ready to do so as he looked for a spot to write.

Chelsea Edwards, a 23-year-old senior, said after days of thinking of little else than the shooting she too was pleased her sociology teacher moved ahead with course work. At the same time, "I also like the counselors there," she said of more than 500 volunteers from around the nation assigned to each classroom.

Students told of finally doing what they were supposed to be doing -- if for no other reason than maybe take their minds off, even briefly, what Kazmierczak had done.

"It was something to do other than sit around and think about it," Lee Scott, a 21-year-old from nearby Sycamore, said after getting out of his sociological inquiry class.

In many classes, students used silence to turn down teachers' offers to talk about the shooting, relieved to talk computer science or economics.

"Just to get it our of your head for a while," said 18-year-old freshman Amanda Serpico, explaining why nobody in her biology class took the teacher up on an offer to talk to one of hundreds of counselors stationed around campus.

Political science professor Matt Streb said that while the shooting was the only subject in some of his Monday sessions, in others, "It seemed like they wanted to go on to the [class] material."

Students expressed determination to get on with their lives.

"That's not going to define my college experience, one day out of the three years I've been here," said Dan Beno, a 20-year-old junior from Beach Park.

But like others, he knows he and his fellow students will long be linked to an act of madness, just like those students from Virginia Tech who came to NIU to offer support.

"It's terrible to think, [but] it's going to be, 'Oh, that's the shooting school,'" Beno said.

One of students most seriously wounded in the attack, Maria Ruiz-Santana, was released Monday from a hospital in Downers Grove, doctors said. More than 20 pellets from a single shotgun blast hit her in the chest, head and neck, and she underwent five hours of surgery.

The 20-year-old Ruiz, a criminology major, is more resolved than ever to go into law enforcement and isn't angry at her shooter, her father said at a hospital news conference.

"She feels sorry for this guy," Alfredo Ruiz said.

But his daughter "was devastated" to learn Saturday that two friends, Catalina Garcia, 20, and Ryanne Mace, 19, died in the attack. The three had been sitting together near the front of the Cole Hall auditorium, Ruiz said.

On the quiet, rural campus in DeKalb, students seemed to feel that maybe they aren't as removed from the big city, or its perceived problems, as they once believed. Or perhaps not as independent as they thought.

"It's not half as safe as I thought it was," said Kathryn Neeves, a 22-year-old junior.

"My family is about three hours away and the only thing I could think about was how badly I wanted to see them," Neeves said of the time after the shooting.

And students said they'll move on feeling differently not only about their school, but also themselves.

"Something has been taken," said Kristi Bradford, a 19-year-old from Bloomington. "But something was given back. It made me grow up a little."

Early Monday morning, NIU President John Peters noted the students "do need each other. They do want each other." Others agreed.

"I used to not feel close to other college students. We were doing the same thing but we had nothing in common," Scott said after his sociology class. "Now I feel close to my classmates even though I don't even know who they are."

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